Earth Blog #4 – Breakthrough to High Schools

Last year was a breakthrough year for the Department of Earth Sciences. Perhaps you noticed the stronger support by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the addition of two full professors active in paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental research; the dean's appointment of a new department head (Tracy Frank); a near-doubling of our graduate student group; an 18% increase in undergraduate enrollment; the approval and initiation of eight Beach Hall renovation projects; and the expansion of our curriculum to all five UConn campuses.

But I'm guessing there's a breakthrough you missed: the first-ever teaching of our introductory earth science course ERTH 1051: Earth's Dynamic Planet in a Connecticut high school through the Early College Experience (ECE) program. Our pioneer was Meghan Kinkaid, who teaches at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in Windsor. Her students could now come to UConn having already taken our introductory course, and thus a jump-start on completing the major. More importantly, they will have talked with other students about how exciting our field is and what good jobs there are, a recruitment pool loaded with under-represented and under-resourced students. When I interviewed Meghan for the latest issue of UConn's ECE Magazine, she reported that her students learned they are "impacted by earth sciences daily and that this course gives [them] an opportunity to make them aware, take interest, and possibly plan a career around it."

Her breakthrough is the first of many to come. Five teachers from four additional schools are certified for next year, and I expect the growth to double each year until nearly everyone in every Connecticut high school knows who we are. UConn's ECE program is rock solid, and will help us meet that goal. It's "the oldest and one of the largest concurrent enrollment programs in the United States. Founded in 1955, UConn ECE is nationally recognized as a model of academic excellence and rigor."

We're talking about lots of potential students. During the 2020-2021 academic year, 75,888 UConn credits were earned or attempted by 12,571 Connecticut high school students offered by 1,487 teachers certified by UConn departments from 208 Connecticut high school partners. From the UConn perspective, 77 UConn courses were offered by 35 departments from 5 schools and colleges. Astonishingly, 33.5% of entering UConn students are ECE Alumni, and probably every single one knows about the program. Given the recent cultural swerve away from standardized tests, ECE makes far more sense than the entrenched AP (advance placement) program.

My goal is to have every high school principal, guidance counselor, and science teacher in all 208 schools serving all 12,571 students know that the ECE program provides them a way to fast track their students into our department. This will increase the size and diversity of our major, which will strengthen our program and more broadly serve the earth science needs of the state of Connecticut. MARN 1002E Introduction to Oceanography and NRE 1000E Introduction to Environmental Science have been successful ECE courses for many years. This year, Connecticut high school students from Windsor, Hartford, New London, Ridgefield, and hopefully Plainfield will have a ERTH 1051 as a new option, with ERTH 1050 coming soon.

Robert M. Thorson is the ECE Coordinator for Earth Sciences and Co-PI of the NSF GEOPATHS Grant that precipitated this initiative. Other members of this team include Lisa Park Boush (PI), Michael Hren and Will Ouimet (Co-PIs), and Margaret Thomas (State Geologist).